At some point I should attempt to articulate the questions that motivate me to do neuroscience. Presently, questions take the form of "what would it even mean for neuroscience to succeed?". We don't know. Another phrasing : "what form do you expect the answers from neuroscience to take?".

What would it mean for us to say we understood consciousness? We are looking for both a functional duplication, as well as a satisfying philosophical explanation. The "hard problem" of consciousness is not a problem from science, it is philosophy. For me, personally, statements like "existence of information is equivalent to experience of information" and "consciousness is a mathematical entity" assuage my doubt and scratch th surface of the hard problem, but these are more religious statements than scientific.

I think, fundamentally, what we want is a mathematical story. We want that story to say that there is something elegantly simple about consciousness, that we are some sort of standard algorithm that happens to have been implemented in neurons. Such a theory ( or is it philosophy ? ) in union with the minute details of the wiring of our impulses and emotions, can satisfactorily explain consciousness.

WeAlone editors* and readers : what would it mean for your respective fields to succeed ? Is this even a fair question to ask ? In general, is there a cohesive underlying goal that holds fields together, or are most fields loosely connected pursuits of very specific, very obscure problems, with no overarching goal ? Does society implicitly assume certain grand goals when funding and conducting scientific research : immortality, wealth, equality, space colonization, machine consciousness, or are we forced to concede that "science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race or to any other standard, obedient only to the psychological needs of the scientists and of the government officials and corporation executives who provide the funds for research."**

*editors feel free to respond with primary posts, since a lot of your post-length statements get buried in comment threads
**[quote from the undeniably insane Theodore Kaczynski's "Industrial Society and its Future" (I guess terrorists have intellectual property rights too?)]


  1. Anonymous27.9.10

    Big Science has no conscience or will. The systematic pursuit of scientific research is done in the name of technological progress that is, as Kaczynski says, is blind. There is no one in the universities, or in government, pulling the strings, guiding Big Science to greater truths that will lead society to a bright, shining future. Labs merely churn out new materials that engineers can use to churn out new devices that speed our collective and ultimate destruction.

  2. Nope : science is at worst neutral, and almost certainly a net benefit. Basically 100% of scientists are altruistic. A very small fraction might be ignorant of the negative applications of their research, but technological innovation has steadily raised the mean standard of living, and enabled support of a larger population. I see no trend toward annihilation. You can go back to the dark ages or a time before indoor plumbing, but I'm going to stay here in the future, with science.

  3. I don't see how you can say that Mike.

    Even if all the scientists are well intentioned the overall system can be terrible, we've seen this time and time again. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." What about all those physicists in the 40s who learned that the most important result of their research was the atomic bomb?

    You are willfully blind if you can't at least admit a decent possibility of annihilation -- this is a big part of the whole post-modern existential crisis of our society.

    What I do contend is, using Kaczynski's ideas to justify violent Ludditism, is really just trying to use Kaczynski to justify violent anarchism.

    I don't doubt that Science progresses without anyone really able to oversee it -- its obviously far too complex. I simply doubt that any other large scale organization of people is purposefully managed in any significant way. Managing a large scale system is hard, and for the most part it necessarily has to evolve on its own without oversight.

    Who could be at the top, watching over all the humans and trying to make sure they have the right ideas and solve the unpredictable myriad problems as yet unanticipated? It is an exercise in theology to imagine anything besides the blind leading the blind into the future.

  4. No, you leave science out of this. If the overall system is terrible, then its the components of the system independent of science that need addressing.

    The atomic bomb is a prime example of misapplication of science by the military industrial complex, and I feel that its inappropriate to place blame on scientists, who do their work to help society.

    If I'm in the paleolithic, and I make a flint axe for wood working and butchering my kills, then the guy in the next cave over copies me and goes around bashing people's heads in, I think its absurd to say that I am somehow responsible for this.

    Ultimately, the decision to commit moral transgressions is made by this other individual, by industry, by the military.

    If we as a society want to stand up to misapplication of science, we need to look to stricter regulations on the applications of new discoveries in business, and re-evaluate the powers we vest in the military.

    Kaczynski was completely insane. He saw industrial progress destroying the environment and flipped out. I think we can all get upset with progress that destroys the intrinsic value of natural ecosystems, but this is fundamentally different than saying something like "The technology of internal combustion should never have been discovered, since it can facilitate rapid environmental destruction"

    Science is not headless. Science, in fact, would be working very poorly without large scale organization. We can't exchange results reliably without peer reviewed publication, that takes organization. We can't allocate social resources to solving problems without a government based funding apparatus. The NSF and the NIH have mission statements, defined by the electorate or representatives thereof, which guide how public funds are distributed for research. How is this anything less than conferring organized, directed, and very much not blind, goals onto science ?

    Your ethical conflicts come, principally, from DOD funded research, corporate funded research, wartime projects, etc. I think its pretty easy to distinguish between science organized for social good, and science organized for killing people.

  5. So when society chooses to use Science for good, then Science gets to take responsbillity for all the progress that has resulted, but when society chooses to use Science for evil, then Science may take no responsbillity?

    "I think its pretty easy to distinguish between science organized for social good, and science organized for killing people." In the immediate short term future, maybe. In the medium to long term, of course not. You can't possibly know what your ideas will inspire whom to do what.

    This idea that the NSF and NIH really have a birds eye view of Science, guiding us towards progress is laughable -- the NSF bureaucrats are responsible for distributing funds in some sane way, but to suppose that they can see the connections across diverse fields and organize the largely autonomous groups of scientists towards noble goals, is absurd. The ONLY people who have any idea how a field is progressing or what directions might be fruitful to work towards, are the experts in that field. Don't look to the administrators to be the guiding light of science, keeping us on the path towards "progress"...

  6. I think, when pure science gets translated to successful social policy, we need to give credit to the organizers who made this happen. While its super nice that we can treat most cases of HIV right now, its only a fraction of the hard work needed to translate these results to broad social benefit.

    What you say about scientists taking credit when their inventions cause social good, and blaming others when their inventions cause evil, is valid.

    However, I think that the implication is that we need to give more credit to non-scientists that can organize theoretical results for social good, not that we need to blame science more for the evil things that happen.

    By requiring that grants meet the NSF and NIH mission statements, we are providing a mechanism to motivate scientists toward socially useful research. This is why, for example, biomedical research is much more heavily funded than mathematics. Furthermore, these funding choices in NIH and NSF are made by panels of experts. These people are given a pile of grants, and a pile of guidelines about what society expects for science, and are trusted to pick those projects that are most in line with what the electorate expects. We need to distinguish between a notion of "blind" science that simply means "science is hard and its hard to know where we're going" and completely aimless science being "we will increase knowledge at all costs with no thought as to how to prioritize to maximize positive social effects". Short of omniscience, the first is impossible, while the second is implemented fairly well.

  7. To elaborate,

    We might praise a mathematician for coming up with a new encryption algorithm.

    Maybe this algorithm gives rise to a secure online economy, or maybe it makes it impossible to wiretap criminals. Should I blame the mathematician for complicating law enforcement, or praise the mathematician for fostering internet commerce ? no, neither. The criminals are to blame, and the people who put the work into building the businesses are to be praised.

    But it is still valid to confer praise and status on the mathematician for his or her brilliance and hard work in advancing human knowledge in the abstract.

  8. Mike, it is fine to argue that the NSF establishes noble goals for science, and enshrines the "good intentions". But to suggest that this means that Science is not Headless, as you originally claimed, is silly. There may be a part that calls itself the head, but the head has no idea what the body is doing, it cannot see it, it cannot hope to process the information, nor understand the environment in which its various limbs are navigating, in any meaningful sense. It may not be totally unguided, but the guidance takes the form of establishing intentions, and doing, by necessity, only very local sanity checks.

    Whether or not Science ultimately results in a supermassive industrial complex which makes the environment inhospitable to life, remains to be seen, and whether even sophisticated regulatory mechanisms can be established which are capable of preventing this from happening, also remains to be seen.

    Thus there is this truth behind what Kaczynski writes, that we cannot know the full consequences of our actions, that no one can anticipate them, and so by participating in Science you open Pandora's box and hope for the best.

    To some extent the same may be said of any course of action -- no matter what you do you can't really know what the consequences will be. But when you play around with Science you are really playing with fire, or so the Kacyznski apology goes. He saw the world being destroyed as the most palpable consequence of Science, and no amount of convenience or luxury is worth it, or so one might reasonably maintain. So he took it upon himself to attack the arsonists.

    I'm not actually trying to say he is right. I think this kind of reasoning is not useful, it is just paralyzing. If you want to anticipate the consequences of your actions so you can be sure that what you are doing is good, pretty much the only thing you can do is very, very low level charity work, where best case, you are helping people substantially, worst case, you are negligible in the long run... of course maybe the worst case is that you foster dependency, prevent Africa from farming its own food by giving it free food, or something more subtle...

    For Kaczynski to believe that he could see what was going on, that he could see that Science was evil but no one else could, that he was smart enough to see beyond the putative Head, shows his great conceit. The kinds of actions he took were obviously negative in the short term and I don't think he disputed this. He simply had great, and by the same argument as he employed, unfounded, faith that Science would in the long run have a tremendous negative impact. His argument "You guys can't possibly know that Science will ultimately lead to good", has the corollary "I can't possibly know that Science will ultimately lead to bad".

    What I would say now is that, it is hopeless to try to evaluate whether what you are doing is ultimately good or bad because these questions are too complicated. You have to just cross your fingers and do what you like doing, and employ basic sanity checks. This is what everyone must do. So to call the social good that ultimately sometimes results a direct consequence of their benevolence, and to praise their "contribution to progress" when it might seem there is one, is silly. Because they had no idea of this when they did whatever they did, and moreover it is presumptuous to assume that you can correctly tell when something is ultimately good or ultimately bad. You should praise them for their skill and cleverness when they succeed in some clever way -- that is what is appropriate. And you should praise them for not being paralyzed by the overwhelming uncertainties of life.

  9. So, if we re-read our comments, we find at least 60% agreement. I want to stay focused on what started this discussion : I am trying to articulate why the anonymous comment seems incorrect to me.

    "There is no one in the universities, or in government, pulling the strings, guiding Big Science to greater truths that will lead society to a bright, shining future."

    I'm sorry, but reality is almost in direct opposition with this statement. As a member of the scientific community, I have to interact with these strings on a daily basis. Some scientists complain about these strings, but they are put in place to hold science accountable to society. For taxpayer funded science, we have organizations that do, indeed, guide science toward creating a "bright, shiny future". Every time a grant fails to get funded because "potential for public good has not been demonstrated", we see the strings. Every time a study gets shut down because its methods conflict with the morals and ethics of the people, we see the strings.

    "Labs merely churn out new materials that engineers can use to churn out new devices that speed our collective and ultimate destruction."

    Is it really true that every new invention in the human race brings us closer to destruction, any more so than the passage of time brings us closer to destruction ? Certainly, there are historical instances where inventions have saved our species from local ( maybe even global ) extinction. It may be possible to argue that every human invention has been bad for basically everything else thats not human in the universe, but thats not what was claimed here. By this claim, every human endeavor that requires innovation is inherently making things worse. If I come up woth a new way of managing crops that promotes pest and drought resistance with less energy and environmental damage, am I still speeding our collective destruction?

  10. Science est Potentia. Knowledge is power.

    Science, as the pursuit of knowledge about the natural universe, is not organized, and while some groups may try to bend it towards socially desirable ends, the only universal result of scientific knowledge is power over the natural universe. Power can be used for good or evil, but it intrinsically raises the stakes. Industrialization improves our quality of life, but also unleashes the potential of climate change. Nuclear weapons give us the means to destroy the world, but have also made past 65 years the least violent period in history per capita. We should acknowledge the cleverness and creativity of the science, but he or she does not bear the intrinsic good or evil consequence of his or her invention.

    The fundamental question with convergent technologies/The Singularity is "Do we have the wisdom to use the power bestowed by these technologies?" I believe that the answer is yes, that well-intentioned people working for the common good can achieve their desired ends. We have gone too far with science to reverse our course now, not without the deaths of billions from infrastructure/ecosystem collapse.

    The alternative to engagement with science is disaster; relinquish these world-shattering technologies to the most desperate and least scrupulous among us.

  11. Mike: So I see your point, but I think the salient counterpoint is, "Just because someone is pulling the strings doesn't mean the puppet is dancing."

    With regards to "is it really true...", the claim is not that it certainly is true, just that it might be true. Its a possibility that you can't rule out, a risk you implicitly choose to take, possibly at the expense of many others. But its actually a risk which doesn't have all that much to do with Science in particular, so its sort of a risk that you must choose to take, or else spend your life paralyzed.

    Biff: I suppose that if there's no turning back, we might as well have faith that the future is not a gaping hole of suck... this doesn't necessarily override your responsibility to make sure that each step you take is not making everything dramatically worse for everyone else. When you don't have enough info to make that judgment, would you rather be honest about that fact, or just be cheery about it? If everyone is actually much happier with dishonesty than with brutal honesty, it may be the best policy option... (excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth!) (my apologies if you haven't been watching john stewart lately).

    Would rather not argue about that kind of "is it better to lie" fluff. Biff, faith aside, you are willing to entertain the possibility that we end up in a twisted post-science dystopia, right? Do you actually take issue with:

    "Whether or not Science ultimately results in a supermassive industrial complex which makes the environment inhospitable to life, remains to be seen, and whether even sophisticated regulatory mechanisms can be established which are capable of preventing this from happening, also remains to be seen."


  12. Chris:

    There is a very real potential that the future will suck, and that it will suck hard. However, I think it is clear that if we keep our current level of technology, we will experience a resource collapse sooner rather than later. Oil, water, helium, rare earths, all of these are limited non-renewable resources.

    We need new technologies. This is not negotiable. What is negotiable is the forms that these technologies will take, and its where we can make a difference.

    So to respond directly to your question about whether or not science will render the earth uninhabitable, and whether or not a comforting lie is better than the brutal truth: These are statements about the future, they are opinion, not fact. We can hold whatever beliefs we like, to the point where they contradict reality, or lead us into harmful actions.

    Optimism is dangerous when it prevents us from taking action on an obvious harm (we don't need to reduce CO2 because global warming is a lie.) Optimism is useful when it encourages action (We can survive global warming if we invest in alternative energy now.) But lies, opinions that counter the fact or promote ignorance, are never good or useful. Even if they seem so in the short term, the long term consequences of lies entering the public discourse is toxic.